Elvis sang about it, the Rat Pack was known for it and couples eager to tie the knot gravitate toward it.
There is no other place in the world like Las Vegas, a glowing city in the middle of the desert where excess is the norm and the bars never close.
Las Vegas is a hotspot for conventions and vacationers, and whereas its name instantly conjures up visions of slot machines, gaming tables and all other manners of gambling, it is also an entertainment mecca. Almost every singer, band and comedian has performed in Vegas at some point in their career. The world-famous Cirque du Soleil company has no less than seven permanent shows stationed in different hotels on the famous Las Vegas Strip, and even the ones that have been running for years sell out on a regular basis. You do not have to be a gambler to appreciate what Las Vegas has to offer. There are enough shows, shops and world-class restaurants to keep you busy without putting one penny in a slot machine.
Really the world is your oyster here, depending on your budget. Las Vegas is all about getting bums in seats in the casino, or at least hoping you’ll end up there, so rooms for which you might pay many hundreds of dollars elsewhere are a lot more reasonable in Vegas. If you’re not going to rent a car, sticking to the strip is a good plan, and there are a number of options to suit all wallets. Properties like The Bellagio, The Venetian and the Wynn are going to be on the more expensive end of the scale, but then you have older places like Harrah’s and the Flamingo where you’re getting the advantage of location without the high price tag. I personally have always liked Bally’s. It is one of the older hotels but isn’t run down like some of the others, its casino isn’t huge, it has a prime location on the strip within easy walking distance of The Bellagio which is great when you want to see that property’s famed fountain display, and is linked via an indoor walkway to Paris. It also is one of the stops on the monorail that runs from 7am to 2am from Monday to Thursday, and until 3am on Friday to Sunday. Tip: Las Vegas hotels tend to have floating room rates. They change on a regular basis, depending on occupancy levels. If you’re booking around a major convention time then there might not be many deals to be had, but typically mid-week will be less expensive than the weekends, and once you book, you can keep checking the hotel’s site to see if the room price has gone down. If it has, you can just call the property and re-book at the lower rate with no penalty. This will not work if you’ve booked through a third-party site like Expedia, so bear that in mind when you’re planning your trip.
If you’re comfortable driving in the US, Vegas is a good place for renting a car. You will never have any problem finding parking because again, the hotels and casinos want to make life easy for you so you’ll hopefully come in and spend some money. Hotels have self-parking lots, but then they also have valet. Valet is free, but of course tips are expected, and the better the tip, the less time you’ll have to wait to get your car back. We’ll cover that more in the “Tipping” section.
You’ll want to drive down the strip at night at least once to experience it. A convertible is an excellent choice so you and your passengers can see the amazing light displays without the roof getting in the way. Once you’ve been down the strip a few times, however, and sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic for a while, particularly on Friday nights, start taking advantage of the back roads that run behind the hotels, which will get you to your destination in much less time.
There are a number of outlet malls in Las Vegas, but you won’t be able to walk to them easily unless you’re keen on going for miles. A rental car will get you to all of them, and the usual favourites like Target, Wal-Mart etc.
Of course just like anywhere else in the US, drinking and driving is severely frowned upon, so if you’re planning to go out for the night and indulge in alcoholic beverages, leave the car at the hotel and use one of the many alternative methods of private or public transport available to you. Tip: You can rent from the airport, which has a nice one-stop depot for all the major agencies, or check your hotel in advance to see if it has an in-house desk.
No matter what your poison, chances are you’ll find some form of entertainment that will appeal to you. Las Vegas is home to major boxing events, usually held at the MGM Grand, and numerous visiting high-profile acts like Jerry Seinfeld, Elton John, Aerosmith and Jay Leno. Shania Twain has recently taken up residence at The Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace where she will be performing for the next two years. She is following in the footsteps of such powerhouse singers as Celine Dion, Cher and Bette Midler who have all enjoyed stints there, and judging by the early reports, her show is on its way to being a certified hit as well.
No one should miss a Cirque du Soleil show. This extraordinary troupe of acrobats, comedians and dancers is so popular that after beginning with Mystere at Treasure Island and “O” at The Bellagio, the audience and critics demanded more shows. Since those two, the repertoire has expanded to include the erotic adult show Zumanity at New York, New York, KA at the MGM Grand, The Beatles LOVE at The Mirage, Criss Angel Believe at the Luxor and Zarkana at the new and sparkly CityCenter. My personal favourites are Mystere, “O” and LOVE, but none of them will disappoint you. If you’re a Beatles fan you have to see LOVE. The digitally remastered tracks play through a state-of-the-art sound system including speakers right by your seats. If the music and pageantry don’t make your emotions swell, you’re made of stone. Tip: First-timers to Las Vegas will tend to gravitate towards the big shows like Cirque du Soleil, the grand scale magician acts, and generally any of the entertainment that is very well advertised with pricey tickets. There are, however, a few entertainment options that don’t cost the earth and are well-worth a look. One of the best bangs for your buck, hands-down, is the Mac King magic show at Harrah’s. He has been there for years and performs in the afternoon. It’s a great family show with subtle humour and amazing tricks. Penn and Teller, much more famous than King, have openly announced their admiration for his talent in one of their books. “Mac King is a god,” were the very words. Tickets are around US$40 including taxes and fees, and if you tip the manager well, you can ask for a booth rather than the chair seating. Again, more about that in “Tipping.”
A few other free or less expensive shows include the fountains at The Bellagio – a spectacular dance of water to music; La Cage at The Riviera hotel featuring drag queens dressed up as all your favourite performers, and do NOT miss the Fremont Street Experience – a walk through old Vegas with the Golden Nugget et al surrounding you, resplendent with thousands of lights. Every hour or so, all the lights go down and the entire ceiling above turns into a spectacular video of light and music. The Queen show is my personal favourite. Seriously, it doesn’t cost anything and everyone in your posse will be dazzled.
From the cheesiest knick-knacks you could ever imagine to flawless yellow diamonds bigger than your head, you’ll find everything your little heart desires at the many shops in and around Las Vegas. The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace will keep you going for hours, then there’s The Fashion Show Mall on the strip, and loads of clothes, jewellery, toy and gift shops in every hotel. Las Vegas Premium Outlets on South Grand Central Parkway and Las Vegas Boulevard South feature over a hundred stores with such names as BCBG Max Azria, Dolce and Gabbana and Calvin Klein above the doors so give yourself a good few hours to make your way around them. Again, having a rental car here would be useful. Maryland Parkway to the west of the strip has a nice selection of familiar stores like Best Buy, Target, Walgreens and the like.
Las Vegas has the dubious honour of being home to the 99-cent shrimp cocktail and similar rock-bottom priced cuisine like lobster and steak for which one would normally expect to pay a goodly sum. There are some great deals to be found but for the majority of the time, the “you get what you pay for” saying rings true. Don’t anticipate Kobe beef when you’re paying $1.99 for a steak.
Luckily there are many excellent restaurants in Las Vegas, so if you’re a foodie with a bit of money to spend, this could be your nirvana. There is Le Cirque at The Bellagio, Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab at Caesar’s Palace and Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay for starters, but we could spend thousands of words covering all the worthy restaurants there are to visit. There are also gems like the Jean Philippe Patisserie in Aria, CityCenter, where you’ll witness the world’s largest chocolate fountain and stay for the European pastries that simply melt in your mouth.
As in many major cities, Sunday brunch is a ritual in Las Vegas. The Bellagio is known for a fabulous brunch, and odds are good you’ll find one at most hotels along the strip. Bally’s Sterling Brunch held in its steakhouse is also pretty famous and very well reviewed. Tip: Don’t forget to make reservations in advance for the most popular brunches, or you may find yourself sitting in front of a 99-cent shrimp cocktail.
Las Vegas is a tipping town, and the sooner you understand how this can work to your advantage, the better. You’d be surprised what doors a good tip can open for you. For example, if you are going to valet your car at a hotel to see a show and you don’t want to wait for it when you come out, tip the valet person in advance. If it’s a nice hotel and a weekend, US$10-$20 will put your car out front. They won’t even take it to the lot. Make it clear when you hand them the money that you want the car immediately when you come out.
When going to a show like the Mac King one I mentioned earlier, or any show where seating is not numbered, tip the manager, greeter or seater – whomever is taking you to your chair – about US$5-$10 and say “I’d appreciate it if you could get us good seats.” Odds are good you’ll either get a booth, or a nicely positioned table.
Most of the time a tip will also magically open a space in valet, even if there’s a sign saying they’re full. Drive up, offer a tip and ask if they could possibly squeeze you in.
Be prepared for the fact that even as you’re trying to shove US$20 into someone’s hand that they may still say they can’t help you. Under those circumstances they won’t take the money, and you’ll have to find an alternative solution. Ninety per cent of the time, however, a good tip will get you to the front of the line, good seats and reduce your waiting time. If you’re not bothered, terrific, but it’s always nice to know you have options, particularly if you’re in a rush. Tip: If you’re not sure what to tip to get results, ask one of your valet guys. They’ll be able to tell you what gets you sorted at their property and others on the strip.
You don’t have to be a gambler to really enjoy what Las Vegas has to offer. Beyond everything I have mentioned there are also helicopter trips to the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon, and rides like the roller coaster outside New York, New York and the heart-stopping options at the top of the Stratosphere. One thing to also remember is that whereas the strip itself is a magical combination of lights and digital displays, there are certain areas not far off it that can be a bit seedy. As when you visit any new place, be aware of your surroundings and take the advice of the locals.